Nono, Fragmente-Stille...an Diotima (plus Clementi, Lely, Molitor)
(As part of Principal Sound (Nono / Feldman), St John’s Smith’s Square, 17th February 2018)
I went to this to see Nono’s Fragmente-Stille, his string quartet written after Hölderlin, taken by some as his ‘retreat’ from politics but to me absolutely a political piece. (And doesn’t the bourgeoisie love to point out the ‘hyopcrisies’ of artists with commitment, and the ways that commitment gets tested and figured in the changing grounds of defeat and of the texture of the work itself? As the liner notes to the Arditti’s recording put it: “some [were] disconcerted by Nono’s ‘turnabout’ from a revolutionary to an apolitical stance, others yet claiming with guileful joy that the worn and tired rebel was now crawling towards his cross”.) A totally masterful piece, I think, and masterful not in the way the term ‘mastery’ would imply the whole canonical value judgement that Nono’s work undermines from within, or elsewhere, in its whispered bow scrapes and sudden moments of taut, shivering, shimmering ensemble noise, but in terms of being a touchstone, a piece to return to, again and again, to refresh and to remind of the alternatives it proposes: as Nono put it, “other spaces, other heavens”. The first half was a rather disappointing comparison, and, if anything, I’d have preferred to just see Fragmente-Stille: excerpts from Otto Frammenti by Aldo Clementi, a contemporary of Nono’s whose strange and hard-to-place music the Bozzinis have championed on disc, John Lely -- a short piece called ‘Doubles’ -- and Claudia Molitor, a longer work, maybe 20 mintues or so, departing, though in ways I couldn’t quite catch, from a line of Rilke’s (Und laB Dir jeden Tag geschehen). So first, the Clementi, which at the time I found immensely frustrating, but am still intrigued by, if not convinced, whatever that would mean. But that question is important -- to be convinced of Clementi’s music, what would one have to be convinced of? What elsewhere? I need to hear more Clementi to make these judgments, I suppose, and am talking about its placement on the programme, particularly given my expectations around the Nono, and the way the other pieces sat rather awkwardly separated from it, not only by the interval that divided first half from second, but by something that on the evening at least seemed more profound, more significant. Simon Cummings at 5 Against 4 notes of Clementi’s piece Madrigale -- where the sonic palette of instruments is more unusual, more open, perhaps --
I don’t hear the piece as yet another bland illustration of the ubiquity of decay—on the contrary, Madrigale is surely more positive than that: the way the pianists persist undaunted in their rotating patterns of musical material irrespective of the work’s gradual grinding to a halt is rather poignant; would that all things could continue with such focussed determination towards their inevitable ends.For sure: but the need to use terms like ‘poignancy’ or ‘undaunted’ or ‘positive’ and ‘focussed determination’ seems to me emblematic of the way that to talk about this music requires a humanisation of what otherwise seem purely formal exercises -- the stuff of composition classes elevated to the concert hall platform itself. But I can only really talk about the pieces performed on the night. And of these to say: Clementi’s canons, as if often remarked, are studies in decay, or delay. They are obsessive, but contained, melancholy, but with no overt emotional markers: music as something approaching the notion of ‘pure form’. But of course art can’t do that, things slip in from the outside, and the melancholy of these pieces is perhaps both that things slip in and that they can never slip in enough, and so the pieces build up a shell, a cage, a self-enclosed space which is nonetheless communicated in public. Clementi often said -- presumably thinking of composers like Nono here, for whom music and political commitment had to be connected -- that all art could do was to describe its own ending. There’s a risk here, of nostalgia for some closer connection between community and aesthetics, not to explode this wall as so many experiments in utopian living, utopian art, did, or even in the fragile realisations of Nono’s own late works -- those where he is most truly political, contentiously, perhaps -- but to lament or just to re-iterate the ending. As Clementi himself put it in 1977:
Not anymore is the musician a beacon that guides the whole of humanity, as in the beautiful Romantic era. Mankind does not seek art anymore but only comfort, practicality, pleasure and entertainment. One has to have the courage to admit that there is no more need for art”. (Quoted here)This notion of the beauty of the Romantic era, and of the role of the musician -- in which the word musician takes on a necessarily limited sense, that of the composer -- as beacon for the whole of Humanity, rests on universalist assumptions whose partiality we can all too easily question, particularly when it ignores the vital social role played in any other number of traditions than that of Western Art Music, by music and the musician (thought of in a collective sense -- as groups of musicians, integrated into community, rather than as individual artist, providing music to be played in the bourgeois concert hall). The inverse of such a conception, the melancholy fixation on its loss, does not, however, lead to a formal or political conservatism, but to somewhere elsewhere -- though it is by no means the political commitment (in all its complexity) of Nono’s music. As Michele Zaccagnini writes in a thesis on Clementi:
Clementi [...] subtracted teleology from the Adornian equation metaphorically – thereby sealing Pandora’s box before Hope could come out. Compared with the high stakes that Adorno put on the role of the modern composer, Clementi saw his act as fundamentally useless: an utterly decadent, almost inglorious practice of fiddling with remnants of a formerly glorious art-form.Focusing on craftsmanship and artisanship (the latter his term) rather than art of artistry -- the creation of discrete objects that yet, unlike that of many artisan products, had no function as such -- Clementi’s conception comes to seem something like the Romantic notion of “absolute music” entirely stripped of its mystic purism. Though they were friends, and Clementi late in his life wrote a musical tribute to Nono, their work took different paths in relation to the dilemmas of art and political commitment faced by Nono, Lachenmann, Henze, Wolff, Cardew, and the like, Clementi never retreated into the mysticism of Stockhausen, and his formalism is so extreme as to push to a limit more comfortable experiments would not have the boldness to accomplish. Yet listening to the Otto Frammenti, especially when set alongside Nono’s own fragments, one couldn’t help thinking that, if art describes, and can only describe, its own ending, not in its realisation but simply its cessation, or decay, perversely, it simply becomes more trapped inside itself, repeating itself in the act of ending in a manner that leads to a kind of pristine stasis, beautiful but cold.
Or perhaps that was just my mood. But the other pieces on the first half of the programme, by John Lely and Claudia Molitor, enacted a kind of watered-down version of that Clementian repetition, their cycling structures spaced-out in comfortable alternations to leave a melancholy flavour that spiced but didn’t disturb the space of concert hall, of contained listening within limited frame. They were at times pretty, spiced with enough extended techniques to render them ‘avant-garde’, but not enough to suffuse the entire piece as structure of rupture or new language, necessary language, to evade while inhabiting and in dialogue with the whole history of, in this context, western art music -- as Lachenmann, in the ‘Serynade’ I heard at the Borough New Music series the other week, a study in piano resonance, piano decay, the virtuoso tradition, the physical resonance of the piano and the history that cements, concretes -- or as Nono, here. Instead, in Molitor especially, extended techniques risk becoming mere appendage, just another tool to deploy along with the virtuoso tradition or the frankly bland ensemble sound of much string quartet writing. They are merely effects: the concept of ensemble is not troubled, the relation of parts to whole, individual to collective. These pieces didn’t have the stakes of Clementi, become pure neo-classicism and formalism without extending that to discomfort in the way Clementi’s granite fragments do: like pieces of a statue, puzzling in themselves, parts of a whole that are whole in themselves but demand the reconstruction of an impossible totality.
Thence to the second half, taken up in totality by the Nono: a sudden focus, but a focus slow and patient and fragile and at times intensely difficult. Fragmente-Stille: fragments in stasis, in silence, but many of them, so that event follows on event, not - in terms of listening - obviously in the clear demarcation in the division of movements or sections, but as whispers of material sounding out of silence - the secrecy by which the musician’s meditation on Hölderlin text fragments which are printed in the score, but which the audience cannot see, engages (if not dialectically) with the hierarchies of the tradition of western art music -- and that signifier in particular of bourgeois culture, the string quartet -- and with the silencing of the artist driven away, driven apart, reaching a core of social situations in solitude (Hölderlin), the exiling and the suppression of revolutionary hopes, on the dawn of the 80s -- all of this encapsulated in the Hölderlin fragment chosen by Nono, “yet you do not know this”. Unlike the pieces on the first half of the programme, which could feel simultaneously too rushed and too sparse, too smooth, too calculated, with almost no space for silence -- Nono’s is a piece which excludes neither silence nor physicality - of performers, of the physical bodies of the instrument, the breath of a musician in engagement with the sound-producing capacity of that instrument sometimes sounding even over the musical ‘note’ produced by the instrument itself -- openness, to the outside. Hear the breath of the bow, the instrument extended to its limit in quietness flecked with noise at the edges -- all that’s excluded from the tradition of Romanticism, of virtuosity, of the whole-made ensemble and the well-held note. For Nono, ensemble is not a disciplined block, but fragments in discord, fragments in discourse: Nono thinks about the divisions (of group / of audience / of individuals within ensemble), doesn’t soften it or convert it to regressive splintering. No note can be sounded straight -- this is a piece absolutely full of fermatas -- notes held on the brink of silence, extended almost beyond the point of audibility then juxtaposed with sudden chatter, or sounded with edged harmonics, decay and loss and event following event, no settling through “reduction” to repeated flurries of old forms. It quivers, its shudders, it whispers, it quietly screams, it sighs. It never intones pacifically or chugs. In stillness there is movement, in silence, sound; there are stakes. Noted snuffed like candles, and the ritual of ending in -- bow slow suspended on string -- and then the musicians sitting for a near-minute, meditating on Hölderlin’s texts, no sound emerging, holding the moment before applause brings back the world of bourgeois concert hall and contains anything that might explode that -- the eternal dilemma faced by Nono’s work -- all this a moment of intense drama, while yet refusing the drama of ending, in the cello notes becoming progressively more inaudible, then the silence that final held pose. In his composer’s note, Nono talks about “weak moments”: fragments, not as aphorisms, complete in themselves and united as ‘synthetic moments’, nor by what he might see as ‘synthetic movement’, but conflicting moments not subsumed to a dialectical goal. His note describes the fragments as “always open”: aphorism etymologically relates to being ‘marked off by boundaries’. Ring-fencing: of pieces in programmes, of performers on stages, music in social contexts, the dilemmas of music and political commitment -- Nono doesn’t pretend to erase these fences, but at least he sees a world outside them. Without noise, without furor, Fragmente-Stille is a whisper from somewhere else that you can hear sounding now. It can’t be packed away, leaves its traces still.
(As an afterword: Before the concert, on a freezing evening, we walked past Parliament Square and Millbank tower, Tory Party headquarters overshadowing the Tate, bland and huge; and thought of how the Millbank building was broken into and occupied by students, and the defeat of that movement; when the square was full of kettled protesters, charged by police horses, as the tuition fees bill went through the seat of Power inside the close walls of Parliament; and of Nono and defeat and commitment. And in the concert I thought about what these other pieces lacked, sounding out contained as the building now is just another London facade on a water-front where the power of government (the eternal flame of the police department, of the Tory party) sits over the water from the power of finance and the art establishment. Nono’s music hates that, its reverence is for an elsewhere, and reverence not indifference, in the cold of the church it has no comfort save the saving grace of whispers from elsewhere not even sounded, the musicians reading Hölderlin’s poems to themselves, that barrier of alienation and distance that’s embedded in the format of the bourgeois concert hall, the deconsecrated church, descralised sacrality of art, inhabited and literalised, pushed to edges of audibility. As Nono himself puts it: ”multiples fragments and silences from other spaces, other heavens, to rediscover differently the possibiltiy of not saying farewell to hope.” Would that the programming -- and the performance was, needless to say, very fine -- had given it that respect.)
Julius Eastman - Femenine
Cafe Oto, February 20th 2018
A week or so later, and a very different concert: Julius Eastman’s Femenine, the single work on the programme, performed by Apartment House. I saw this about a year after seeing Eastman’s utterly exhilarating four-piano pieces performed alongside a very moving performance of Rzewski’s De Profundis by the composer as part of the LCMF. I wrote about Eastman a few years ago, having discovered him quite by chance, and since then, when he was almost virtually unknown, the dedicated work of supporters such as Mary Jane Leach has led to the publication of a book of essays, the discovery and release of new scores, new recordings, the proliferating performance of his music around the world. Of these, Femenine has particularly taken off, its hour-long sprawl offering a comparison to the longer works of the likes of Reich but almost totally opposed in spirit and conception and execution. This was performed at LCMF the other night, and I was eager to see it: I didn’t love it on hearing the rather grainy and distorted recording by the SEM Ensemble on the CD release, but the recording of that LCMF performance totally converted me. If asked to characterise its general mood, one might even venture to say that it’s the gentlest of his pieces -- not the brash scalar trumpets of ‘If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich’, not the motoric joy of ‘Stay On It’ (which was performed at Oto the previous night), not the chugging fervour of ‘The Holy Presence of Joan of Arc’ -- but as ever with Eastman, there’s no aural wallpaper, the tension between concentration and relaxation a constant throughout, even as foot taps or head sways also throughout. This tension exists for listener at least -- this is a hard, hard piece to play, especially for the vibraphone player, who has to maintain the same, steady repeated figure all the way through the piece, even as the other players adjust tempos and swirl round, this figure both opening and ending alone, over the distorted, rhythmically slightly off-kilter mechanised sleighbell recording that plays as the almost invisible breathing, or heartbeat of the piece). At times the performance, in all its dimensions, reached passages of prettiness (particularly in the dialogues for flutes) that risked being a little cloying -- and I presume the score contains elements of improvisational openness which mean these decisions are made by the players in part, and are open to change on every performance -- but most of the time there was a quiet ecstasy, an earned and beautiful calm that functioned a shifting centre constantly metallic and jagged around all its edges.
In his re-appraisal of Femenine, written after re-listening to the performance given at the LCMF in 2016, Tim Rutherford-Johnson notes an “erotics”, against a hard-edged, machine-driven tendency in Reich, Glass, etc. I’m not so sure of this here. Perhaps the term ‘erotics’ gestures at the title’s double-edged queer refusal of gender -- the “men” put into the mis-spelled “femin/femenine” aiming to destabilise the association of gendered behaviour from the interpellative categories of biology -- and to challenge the association of minimalism itself with a kind of culturally-appropriative hard-edge (or bland wash of sound) used to sell cars, TV performances, whatever. But however we characterise the emotional or physical spaces it conjures and inhabits, the piece cannot be refused. It begins with the sleigh bells, meant to be motorised but performed now on a recording, playing for at least five minutes, or so it seemed, as the musicians (vibraphone, piano, two flutes, violin, cello and synthesizer) took their places from the audience. This meditational preparation, ritualistic and establishing the seriousness of the piece: then the aforementioned vibraphone part, then slow ensemble tones over the top, riding with this, before a kind of counter-melody gets introduced: as the piece slowly unfolds (not the right metaphor), I distinguished something like three ‘sections’, which recur and refuse any notion of ‘progression’ or ‘climax’ (even as this is frequently played with in a series of ecstatic but also hilarious ‘false climaxes’): the initial riff plus long tone harmonizing on top which then becomes main focus then countermelody gloriously surging and also piano chords bit as punctuation as false climax or one of many and also what seemed to be sections of group improvisation (or improvisations in groups, within the group as a whole) which are also sectional: filigree piano, flutes and strings duetting. Under it all, vigraphone as both melody and timekeeper, sleigh bells as both timekeeper and noise. Highlights: some fantastic octave-chordal work from piano, passages in which the piano poundsin, out, in out of sync, but also the exhilaration of ensemble suddenly coming together in rousing octave chords, all sounding the same before drifting back into beautiful unsynchronised motor that the piece makes its territory. (On the role of improv, I’m not entirely sure -- Mark Knoop’s snyth at least seemed to be mainly improvised. It added a real lower end to the bottom, though the flashes of higher end keyboard sound didn’t quite fit (was there a synth in the original?)) As I say, bits felt a bit too pretty, going into delicate scales, at times with the flutes a bit too melodic, in the sense that melody sat over rhythm, establishing a foreground / background that most of the time didn’t exist, though throughout, melody is rhythm and rhythm is melody -- some echoes of jazz, inevitably invoked because of Eastman’s work with his brother Gerry in a jazz ensemble, also present, generally in the piano part, and generally more successful. To take the title of another Eastman piece, everyone staying on it, the vibraphone part, playing the same repeated phase over and over for over an hour, the sole instrument to start and finish, quite a feat. Eastman’s pieces, in all their varied ways, establish a complex but purposeful emotional tenor full of formal interest and with a core to sustain and be returned to on repeated listenings as a kind of cleansing, a balance, a beautiful and shining example.